I found myself in Clonmel yesterday for business reasons, and since I had plenty of time before my meeting, I wandered around, admiring the town. It’s not a place I knew much about, surprisingly, considering how close it is to Limerick, but I was very taken by it: a handsome, unspoilt settlement with a laid-back feel not entirely unlike the ambience of a place like Westport.
I usually have a camera with me, but not this time, since it’s considered bad form to go into a business meeting and slam a dirty big SLR on the table, but still, I agree, a story about Clonmel deserves proper photography.
There you go. Must try harder. Now move on.
Blundering down Gladstone Street, my eye settled on an extraordinary shopfront, all battered and storm-torn, and my inbuilt desolation-meter said Stop! What’s this?
As I lined myself up to take a picture with my phone (something I detest doing normally), a squat, rotund, red-faced woman of 70-something appeared in front of me.
What are ya doin’?
Eh, I’m taking a picture.
Why are ya takin’ a picture?
Because this is one of the finest shop-fronts I have ever seen.
The woman smiled at me, a strange thousand-yard rictus. He’s a genius.
Him, said the woman jerking her head backwards towards the shop. A genius.
Really? I said. Is he still open for business? It all seems a little battered.
The woman cackled. No. He lives in there … with his sister.
What? Are we talking Norman Bates here?
The woman ignored me. In there. With his sister. A genius.
I studied the front of the huge old Georgian house with its lovely sliding-sash windows, the original handcrafted timber glazing bars still in place, 170 years of craftsmanship surviving so many changes. I compared them with the lumpen PVC replacement windows of the adjoining two houses, flanking the Parke premises on each side and briefly, the word idiots flashed across my mind, but still the woman was talking , like a fat little scarf-wearing chainsaw.
He has priests on both sides of him. Imagine that.
I could imagine nothing worse, I said.
Nothing worse than a broken window.
No, agreed the woman, with a doubtful frown. Are you a Catholic?
I’m not, I said.
Ah, you’re a Protestant so, she said, summoning up the tolerant smile that small-town people of a certain age reserve for the reassuring old Church of Ireland.
I’m not. I’m only taking a picture of a shop. Why do you care what I am?
Where are you from?
That seemed to settle it.
Limerick? What do you believe in?
I believe in going about my business.
Have you God in your life?
There is no God. Anyway, I have to go.
No God? You have no life.
My life is fine, thanks.
Now, I don’t know where they teach that condescending smile. Maybe there’s a school for old bigots where they learn this move, but in any case, my little busybody had the drill nailed. The last time I saw a smile-snarl like that, it was on the appalling old harridan, Míne Bean Uí Chribín or assorted members of the Youth Defence family.
You have no life!!
You have no life without God!! None!!
I thought her head was going to rotate but thankfully it stayed more or less in one place. I must be getting very old. There was a time when I’d have offered such a person a two-syllable farewell, but I surprised myself by turning into Cary Grant.
Good day to you, I said, urbanely, and turned away while the mad lady of Clonmel cackled into the light summer breeze.
It was only later that I realised how I should have answered her questioning, but not with that feeble there-is-no-God nonsense. When the lady asked if I was a Catholic or a Protestant, I should have said I was a Satanist. That would have softened her harsh old cough, and if it didn’t the chemist might have had something if she banged on the door.
Yet again, my innate courtesy toward older people has let me down. Damn you, polite upbringing!
PS. DW Parke Chemist shop, 23 Gladstone Street, is a protected structure, item No 95 in the Clonmel register of protected structures. The council has the power under section IV of the Planning and Development Act,2000, to ensure that such an important item of the built heritage is properly protected.